Us: Challenged to a Dual, by Tyler Smith
I would love to be able to say that Jordan Peele’s Us is a worthy follow-up to his fantastic directorial debut Get Out, but I’m afraid I just can’t. After a genuinely creepy first half, the film very quickly devolves into tedium and over-explanation. It feels directionless, as though Peele created a fantastic horror scenario that he didn’t know what to do with. As such, the film plods along, repeating the same beats over and over, until Peele decides somewhat arbitrarily to just get it over with.
The story involves a family vacationing at their summer home in Santa Cruz. Endearingly-clueless father, Gabe (Winston Duke), attempts to connect with his kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), while his wife, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), becomes increasingly agitated. She has a traumatic history with the nearby beach boardwalk and doesn’t want her own children to be hurt, as well. Things quickly spiral out of control, though, as their home is invaded by another family that looks exactly like them.
It is during these moments – as the family is coming to grips with the surreal situation they’re in – that the film excels. Peele shows himself more than capable of ratcheting up the tension until we just can’t take it anymore. However, as he starts to widen the scope of the story, more explanation is needed to make sense of these strange goings-on. Peele does try to keep things interesting with the occasional action set piece, but it all begins to feel perfunctory and repetitive. Eventually, I found myself losing interest to the point that I genuinely no longer cared about what I was watching.
The actors are not to blame here. Every member of the cast is quite capable, though I do wish that many of them were given more to do. We get a general idea of who the kids are, but we never truly feel like we know them. And Gabe isn’t really explored beyond the superficial “dorky dad” archetype. It is only the character of Adelaide that we are allowed to get to know, and Lupita Nyong’o perfectly captures the character’s strength and emotional fragility. She is palpably frightened throughout the film, yet is able to muster up a very realistic courage that never denies that fear, but simply fights through it. Adelaide is an interesting character, and Nyong’o’s performance carries the film.
With such a game cast and haunting tone, I just wish that the film had amounted to more. Being confronted with one’s own doppelgänger is a tried-and-true horror premise, and a deeply effective one, because it invites the audience to examine the darker aspects of itself. But it has to remain an intimate affair, lest it become impersonal and generic. Sadly, by broadening the story, it becomes less specific to these characters and their issues and begins to feel more like the director is pontificating, actively rejecting story in favor of theme.
It is possible to make such choices work, but I don’t think Peele quite knows how yet. Horror is a tricky genre, which can allow a filmmaker to explore all manner of cultural, psychological, and political themes. But it needs to be balanced just right, or else key elements get lost. And I think Us loses its sense of urgency the bigger it gets.
Peele seems to realize this, and he decides to bring the story back to Adelaide as she grapples with her traumatic past. It’s a smart move, but one that is undercut by a reveal that is lifted straight out of Treehouse of Horror on The Simpsons, and made all the more eye-rolling because it is in no way a surprise. While Nyong’o does her best to give this moment weight, she can’t quite overcome the inherent shrug of such a non-revelation.
This isn’t to say that Us is totally irredeemable. There is plenty of style and mood to suggest that Jordan Peele continues to have a bright future as a filmmaker. Unfortunately, when comparing this film to his stellar debut, I’m not quite as excited for his next film as I was for this one, and that bright future has begun to dim ever so slightly.